underwater sound

Underwater sound

The production, propagation, reflection, scattering, and reception of sound in seawater. The sea covers approximately 75% of the Earth's surface. In terms of exploration, visible observation of the sea is limited due to the high attenuation of light, and radar has very poor penetrability into salt water. Because of the extraordinary properties that sound has in the sea, and because of some of the inherent characteristics of the sea, acoustics is the principal means by which the sea has been explored.


Sound has a remarkably low loss of energy in seawater, and it is that property above all others that allows it to be used in research and other application. Absorption is the loss of energy due to internal causes, such as viscosity. Over the frequency range from about 100 Hz (cycles per second) to 100 kHz, absorption is dominated by the reactions of two molecules, magnesium sulfate (MgSO4) and boric acid [B(OH)3]. These molecules are normally in equilibrium with their ionic constituents. The pressure variation caused by an acoustic wave changes the ionic balance and, during the passage of the pressure-varying acoustic field, it cannot return to the same equilibrium,s and energy is given up. This is called chemical relaxation. At about 65 kHz magnesium sulfate dominates absorption, and boric acid is important near 1 kHz. See Sound, Sound absorption

Sound speed

The speed of sound in seawater and its dependence on the parameters of the sea, such as temperature, salinity, and density, have an enormous effect on acoustics in the sea. Generally the environmental parameter that dominates acoustic processes in oceans is the temperature, because it varies both spatially and temporally. Solar heating of the upper ocean has one of the most important effects on sound propagation. As the temperature of the upper ocean increases, so does the sound speed. Winds mix the upper layer, giving rise to a layer of water of approximately constant temperature, below which is a region called the thermocline. Below that, most seawater reaches a constant temperature. All these layers depend on the season and the geographical location, and there is considerable local variation, depending on winds, cloud cover, atmospheric stability, and so on. Shallow water is even more variable due to tides, fresh-water mixing, and interactions with the sea floor. Major ocean currents, such as the Gulf Stream and Kuroshio, have major effects on acoustics. The cold and warm eddies that are spun off from these currents are present in abundance and significantly affect acoustic propagation.

Pressure waves

The science of underwater sound is the study of pressure waves in the sea over the frequency range from a few hertz to a few megahertz. The International System (SI) units are the pascal (Pa) for pressure (equal to one newton per square meter) and the watt per square meter (W/m2) for sound intensity (the flow of energy through a unit area normal to the direction of wave propagation). In acoustics, it is more convenient to refer to pressures, which are usually much smaller than a pascal, and the consequent intensities with a different reference, the decibel. Intensity in decibels (dB) is ten times the logarithm to the base ten of the measured intensity divided by a reference intensity. See Decibel, Sound intensity, Sound pressure

Wave propagation

The mathematical equation that sound obeys is known as the wave equation. Its derivation is based on the mathematical statements of Newton's second law for fluids (the Navier-Stokes equation), the equation of continuity (which essentially states that when a fluid is compressed, its mass is conserved), and a law of compression, relating a change of volume to a change in pressure. By the mathematical manipulation of these three equations, and the assumption that only very small physical changes in the fluid are taking place, it is possible to obtain a single differential equation that connects the acoustic pressure changes in time to those in space by a single quantity, the square of the sound speed (c), which is usually a slowly varying function of both space and time. See Navier-Stokes equation, Wave equation

Knowing the sound speed as a function of space and time allows for the investigation of the spatial and temporal properties of sound, at least in principle. The mathematics used to find solutions to the wave equation are the same as those that are used in other fields of physics, such as optics, radar, and seismics. See Wave motion

In addition to knowing the speed of sound, it is necessary to know the location and nature of the sources of sound, the location and features of the sea surface, the depth to the sea floor, and, in many applications, the physical structure of the sea floor. It is not possible to know the sound speed throughout the water column or know the boundaries exactly. Thus the solutions to the wave equation are never exact representations of nature, but estimates, with an accuracy that depends on both the quality of the knowledge of the environment and the degree to which the mathematical or numerical solutions to the wave equation represent the actual physical situation.

Ambient noise

A consequence of the remarkable transmission of sound is that unwanted sounds are transmitted just as efficiently. One of the ultimate limitations to the use of underwater sound is the ability to detect a signal above the noise. In the ocean, there are four distinct categories of ambient sound: biological, oceanographic physical processes, seismic, and anthropogenic. See Acoustic noise, Infrasound

Scattering and reverberation

The other source of unwanted sound is reverberation. Sound that is transmitted inevitably finds something to scatter from in the water column, at the sea surface, or at the sea floor. The scatter is usually in all directions, and some of it will return to the system that processes the return signals. Sources of scattering in the water column are fish, particulates, and physical inhomogeneities. The sea surface is, under normal sea conditions, agitated by winds and has the characteristic roughness associated with the prevailing atmospheric conditions. Rough surfaces scatter sound with scattering strengths that depend on the roughness, the acoustic frequency (or wavelength), and the direction of the signal. The scattering is highly time-dependent, and needs to be studied with an appropriate statistical approach. The sea floor has inherent roughness and is usually inhomogeneous, both properties causing scatter. Although scatter degrades the performance of sonars, the characteristics of the return can be determined to enable its cancellation through signal processing or array design. Scattering can also be used to study the sea surface, the sea floor, fish types and distribution, and inhomogeneities in the water column.

McGraw-Hill Concise Encyclopedia of Physics. © 2002 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

underwater sound

[¦ən·dər¦wȯd·ər ′sau̇nd]
The production, transmission, and reception of sounds in the ocean; used for locating submarines and other submerged objects, and to determine the physical structure of the ocean and its bottom, and to study organisms found in the sea.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
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